Al Jazeera offers its own take (literally) on SBC sex summit

A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.

Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.

I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.

Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.

There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.

The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”

OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:

But the event was also a setting where the word “fornicators” was used without irony, and gay people were referred to as “homosexuals.” The meeting — with sessions such as “The Gospel and Homosexuality” — made clear that these evangelicals are not wavering in their stance on certain issues: Marriage is between a man and a woman, homosexual behavior is a sin, and church leaders must not condone it. And that raises the question: In a time of fast-growing embrace of gay rights, when more of their fellow Christians are insisting there’s room for debate on the issue, can conservatives maintain their vision of orthodoxy?

Still no significant material from any of the content sessions. It appears that the purpose of the event was to illustrate what may or may not be taking place among evangelicals on gay issues. Can you say World Vision? In other words, the news hook for coverage of this event was not the content of the event itself.

So it’s about time to get to the meat of this story:

These days, for the first time, evangelicals are beginning to argue among themselves about homosexuality. Last month World Vision, the large evangelical anti-poverty organization, announced it would begin hiring married gay Christians. Less than 48 hours later, under public pressure from evangelical leaders including Moore, the organization reversed the decision.

Nothing there from the summit.

The reversal was a triumphant moment for conservatives. But the fallout caused an uproar among progressive evangelicals. Polls consistently show that young evangelicals are far more accepting of gay relationships than older evangelicals are. A poll released in February by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, found that white evangelical millennials are more than twice as likely as their elders to support same-sex marriage.

Nothing there from the summit.

A new book by 24-year-old Matthew Vines, who is gay and evangelical, is adding to the debate. “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” published on Tuesday by a Christian imprint of Penguin Random House, started to attract attention even before its release. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, R. Albert Mohler Jr., released an e-book rebuttal the same day.

In an interview last week, Vines said many evangelicals are open to changing their views on gay marriage, even if they tell pollsters they don’t support it. Young believers have gay classmates, co-workers and family members; the social costs of maintaining traditional views on gays are high, he said. “Their theological position is so much more open to changing than [Moore] wishes it were,” Vines said. “That’s not something he or any other evangelical leader is going to be able to change.”

It would appear the purpose of this material is to react to the event (the one not being covered) with material collected before the event?

Lydia Bean, a sociologist at Baylor University, said evangelicals are going to face mounting questions over whether there is room in their churches for a wider spectrum of views. “You’re going to see more and more of that conflict within evangelicalism over the next five to 10 years.” Bean’s forthcoming paper in the journal Sociology of Religion, based on national survey data, locates 24 percent of evangelicals in the “messy middle”: They remain opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds but still support civil unions.

Perhaps this is more pre-event background material or was Bean at the conference? It’s hard to tell.

As the “messy middle” grows, some argue that religious leaders will have to decide if condemning homosexuality is central to the definition of evangelical Christianity. Otherwise, they will face the possibility that their numbers and influence will shrink. But Moore rejects this premise and many of the poll numbers that support it: Many pollsters, he says, define “evangelical” too broadly. Few Southern Baptist millennials are wavering in their support for the church’s values, he told Al Jazeera “If we have to choose between church growth and Jesus, we choose Jesus, but I don’t think that’s a choice that has to be made.”

OK, it’s nice to seek a quote from the key figure in the event. Once again, however, where is the actual content of the session Moore led? Wouldn’t it be good to have reactions to the actual information presented in the conference sessions the reporter was sent (maybe I am just being naive) to cover?

But Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College, said he thinks Moore is “whistling in the dark.” “I would not want to be a church leader defending the restriction of gay rights these days,” said Balmer, who has written frequently about the history of American evangelicalism. One option for conservatives, he said, would be to hold their ground and “decamp to the margins” of the culture. “Part of me, albeit reluctantly, will have to admire that,” he said. Another option would be for churches to maintain the same official beliefs about homosexuality but hold them more quietly, making room for disagreement in the pews.

Again, was Balmer at the conference or was he called to react to the publication’s view of what was supposed to happen in the conference? One thing is very, very clear: This conference was all about homosexuality. Totally. Beginning to end. These Southern Baptist folks are totally obsessed with homosexuality.

At this week’s summit, compromise was not on the table. On Tuesday, Mark Regnerus, a controversial sociologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, presented new unpublished data that found only 11 percent of young evangelicals who attend church weekly support gay marriage. Regnerus’ much-disputed 2012 research on gay parenting was cited frequently at the summit as proof that children need a mother and a father.

We have an actual sentence of factual material presented in one of the sessions! Oh joy! I wonder, however, if his presentation was all about, you know, homosexuality or did it have anything substantive about the announced topic which was, for those who have forgotten, “Sex in America: Sociological Trends in American Sexuality” — especially those linked to religious beliefs and practice.

Well, there is this fine Religion News Service piece about the content of this particular session. Oh, wait. It’s by you know who — former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey. Clearly she thought the goal of going to this conference was to actually listen to and cover the contents of some of the sessions.

Hang on, we are almost done.

“I believe these truths are ascertainable by virtue of human reason, and they seem to be borne out in social science data,” Andrew Walker, the ERLC’s 29-year-old director of policy studies, said after hosting a session on threats to biblical marriage. He said he wouldn’t change his views on gay marriage and parenting even if social science conclusively proved that gay parents are no worse than straight ones. “I would still say, based on biblical precedent, that the child in that situation, while maybe on social outcomes is successful and flourishing, still has not been given access to either a mother or a father.”

So was the presentation by Regnerus about his old study or his new one? What did he say in his Nashville presentation that, you know, centered on his totally new material that was being aired for the first time? You know, the new news?

And now, the end.

The Southern Baptist leaders gathered in Nashville are holding firm. It’s not only their approach to homosexuality that many see as old-fashioned: They want Christians to wait until they marry to have sex, and to abstain completely from pornography.

“We’re moving into a time where a Christian understanding of sexuality is going to seem strange, it will seem freakish, and will in many cases seem subversive to the people around us,” Moore said in his keynote speech on Tuesday night. “What I think we ought to do as people of God is not to run away from the strangeness of Christianity.”

And there it is, folks! Yes, this story ends with one real, live quote from a major session at this event. Now was there anything else offered during the Nashville summit that was linked to that rather countercultural statement?

Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    I would certainly never disagree with a tmatt critique. But I do follow the writer of the Al Jazeera piece on Twitter and know that she tweeted quite a bit from the event itself. I think she may be a Wheaton grad, but I’m not certain of that.

    FWIW, I also noticed that the ERLC’s spokesperson shared a link to her story via Twitter and called it “good and fair coverage of our #erlcsummit.” https://twitter.com/dandarling/status/459330938585874432

  • MZH

    All very interesting — and the author of the Al Jazeera piece knows I made a comment about her quoting an Episcopal priest’s ‘concern trolling’ about poorly handling doctrinal views on sex, because it kind of make me laugh when I read it — but I think it’s journalistically fine to expand out from a panel discussion into the broader discussion in play. Using the hook of the conference to have that discussion seems more than journalistically defensible to me. Even if the piece itself isn’t fully devoted to that hook. I think it served readers well.

    • tmatt

      Who cares about it being “fully” devoted to the event. One paragraph of actual content folks. An article that’s about 80 percent gay rights issues from a conference with one panel discussion on the topic.

      If AJA wanted to say the article was coverage of THAT ONE PANEL I’d feel totally different. Maybe.

  • boinkie

    sigh. When I hear of all this tolerance about “gay marriage”, I wonder if those pushing it are using the behavior of the nice lesbian couple down the street to cover the reality of what goes on in the male homosexual community.

    Christian gays that I know who are trying to be pure know that the rough world of gay sexuality exists and reject it, and see “marriage” (to the same sex or to women) as an alternative. So I support that. The problem is that many of these are “open marriage”… I find this last part disturbing mainly because as a physician we have to advise on high risk behavior.

    • Kodos

      Please don’t talk about the elephants in the room.

      Thanks.

  • Brent R. Orrell

    All true. The cultural narrative around homosexuality is now so well set that it will be extremely difficult to change. The press has taken on board the civil rights analogy and is completely unequipped to consider the gay marriage issue through any lense other than that.

    What to do? I commend the two prongs of the Francis Formulation for how evangelicalism should respond from now on: 1) We are sons and daughters of our church and our church has spoken; 2) Who am I to judge? This reaffirms biblical standards and permits us to change the subject rather than engage in the fruitless and damaging tug of war of the past decade.

    I’d combine the Francis Formulation with a pivot away from gay marriage to marriage. In other words, put our time, energy, and money into rebuilding a theology of marriage capable of articulating our intutitions about what marriage is and sustaining our aspirations for what marriage can be. Use that theology as a platform for re-catechizing the faithful and equipping them with a positive vision of marriage to replace the “defense of marriage”. In the process, we’ll probably reduce divorce, porn usage and other sexual dysfunction inside the church which will be very helpful in terms of our lived witness. Then give it about 50 years and see how it goes. I doubt we would do worse than we are on the current trajectory.

    • Bruce Atkinson

      Focusing on marriage is definitely a good and necessary thing for the Church to do. As a marital therapist, I spend a great deal of energy every week trying to build marriages and prevent divorces. God has used me to a larger extent then I ever expected toward these goals. He has been faithful and He has made me to be a very determined therapist, I don’t give up easily, if at all.

      However, your advice on how the Church should proceed to deal with homosexuality sounds like a totally passive approach, a de facto surrender. You want to change the subject, stick your head in the sand. Here is how I hear your advice. We are to tell them:
      1) “This what the Church says, but I don’t really put much stock in it, so you don’t have to either.” Or… “I don’t think it is important, so let’s just ignore it.”
      2) “Who am I to judge? I refuse to judge or point out your self-destructive behavior, even if it sends you to hell.”

      I am sure from what you have written that you agree with the following: We were all born into sin and at best we are forgiven sinners who are being sanctified and growing more spiritually mature. Only God is qualified to measure where we are in our progress. We are not qualified to judge others in the sense of condemnation.

      Here is where we may disagree. We are also called to know and follow Scripture which does condemn certain behaviors and, like OT prophets (and John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude), we are to warn those who are headed for destruction. If we pick on certain sinners, it is because we love them. It hurts me that they are so terribly deceived and that so many of them are miserable (and I have talked to many of them). Our general point: “Please believe what God says in His Word that you are are headed toward destruction. Turn back to God! Repent and believe! Be forgiven and transformed!” Sounds more like love than hate to me.

      I also understand the passive form of codependency quite well, having worked in the field of addiction for many years. Telling sinners that their behavior is not so bad, or even to embrace and celebrate it, or that other sins are worse, is not helping them at all, it is pushing them further down the road to perdition.

      • Brent R. Orrell

        Bruce – as I noted, this isn’t my formulation but the Pope’s. Do you believe he has also surrendered? I see no surrender; what I see is a refusal to be trapped in an utterly predictable and unproductive dialogue of the deaf. Let others continue fighting that way; I’d prefer to at least try something that hasn’t been proven to fail.

        I admire your work as a therapist helping hold families together. My suggestion is that we spend more time on prevention: helping educate our youth toward the vocation of marriage, helping couples discern whether they actually have that vocation before they marry, and then giving them a theology sufficient to support their aspirations for their marriage. We have a fight on our hands but it isn’t the one we have been fixated on for the past decade or so.

        What we haven’t quite come to grips with is that the world doesn’t care about our morality because it isn’t sure we care about them. We need a different pastoral strategy and we can’t successfully execute one when we come across as cruel, unfeeling and judgmental. As a therapist, I’m sure you are familiar with the type of psychological agony most same-sex attracted people experience as they move into puberty and adolescence. The church piles on with its damnation talk but too frequently offers nothing in terms of compassionate care. Caught between what is experienced internally as an insoluable problem and a church that appears to be concerned only with external behavior they eventually walk away. We have successfully created the worst of all possible worlds: judgment without redemption.

        • Bruce Atkinson

          Thanks for your response. I totally agree about your
          suggestions regarding working on prevention. I’ve been preaching that for years. Not everyone is meant for marriage, some have the gift, some have the gift for singleness and chastity. We need to focus on early teens as well as college kids..

          As for your evangelism and pastoral strategy, I do differ. It has been a really long time since western churches (especially Anglicans) have preached like those who were successful in the two Great Awakenings. We have downplayed sin and downplayed ultimate consequences for sin and unbelief. Churches have become social clubs with liturgy and music thrown in. That does not attract those who know they are sinners and need forgiveness, peace with God, eternal life, and transformation in this life. Your strategy seems to be more of the same Laodicean lukewarm story— that is, dumb down the reality of sin and our condemnation, and “come as you are and stay as you are.” That does not preach. More importantly, that does not save any souls. Fear of God (consequences for sin) is the beginning of wisdom because it drives us to God and to repentance and faith. Then and only then can the individual receive salvation, inner peace, and be transformed into the image of Christ. Then perfect love cancels out fear. But it all starts with admitting sinfulness and repentance. People need to first hear judgment or there will be no redemption for them.

          Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) wrote: “Beware of manufacturing a God of your own: a God who is all mercy, but not just; a God who is all love, but not holy; a God who has a heaven for everybody, but a hell for none; a God who can allow good and bad to be side by side in time, but will make no distinction between good and bad in eternity. Such a God is an idol of your own, as truly an idol as any snake or crocodile in an Egyptian temple. The hands of your own fancy and sentimentality have made him. He is not the God of the Bible, and beside the God of the Bible there is no God at all.”

          • Brent R. Orrell

            Bruce – you’re making a lot of assumptions about what I think that are incorrect. I’m not suggesting we do less but more, going deeper into theological reflection on the meaning of marriage which is nothing less than an icon of Trinitarian love; look at a loving marriage and you see the love that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So long as we continue to focus on pointing out the failures rather than praising the good we will continue to lose people to our message. “Truthing” is not the answer when the world has already rejected the idea that truth, any truth, is knowable and binding. The church has always adjusted to its context and we will have to adjust to this change as well by finding avenues other than propositional truth to form our apologetic. This is what CS Lewis would call reaching people through their imaginations.

            Finally, unless we persuade them that we care about them – the whole person and not just their sexual behaviors – our moral doctrine is going to fall on deaf and very angry ears. It is the love of God that draws human beings not the wrath of man.

          • Bruce Atkinson

            Again, I both agree and disagree. For those more sophisticated people, indeed go deep, present spirituality in marriage, etc.. For the rest, we must combine our practical love with the scriptures and with propositional truth. Practical love means feeding the hungry, healing the sick, counseling the depressed, etc., even as Jesus proved His love in this way before He made His great love sacrifice on the cross.

            But what did Jesus actually preach? Believe it or not, His initial ministry was like that of John the Baptist, “Sinners, repent!” (Matt 4:17, Luke 5:31-32, Matt 11:20-24)

            As I have written on another thread, how do people of the Truth, who know God loves everyone and wants them saved, deal with the crowd of human lemmings running headlong toward the cliff of destruction? How do we warn them strongly enough so that they turn back? Sure, it is good for them to know that we care, but it is even more important that they see the danger for themselves. Remember, these are unregenerate, self-serving people. They won’t trust our words of love. The Great Awakenings were more successful at saving souls than churches are today because we dumb down sin and its consequences. Some people (children of the devil) will go off the cliff no matter we say or do, but some are lost sheep who will listen. We must preach sin, repentance, and the necessity of the cross for salvation. We must preach in every way that might work for some, sometimes soft and sometimes hard. Time is running out.

            You wrote: “’Truthing’ is not the answer when the world has already rejected the idea that truth, any truth, is knowable and binding.” Since when does God surrender to relativists? Instead of agreeing with them, we must do the opposite, preach strongly about the absolute God and His absolute truth which is found in scripture. But as long as they have not yet hit bottom psychospiritually, they will continue to follow the ‘me god’ of their own design anyway. No preaching or love will work. But believe me, when a person is ready (prepared by God) to hear the truth, they don’t want their own truth or the world’s truth but THE truth, which can only be found in the Word of God.

            Watering down the truth has never worked and never will work. As for me, I needed the twin true messages that i was a sinner headed for hell and that God loved me enough to become human and die for me.

            I know, I know — watering down the truth is not exactly what you, Brent, are advocating. But you seem to be moving in that direction. Remember that I am communicating with listeners on this thread more than I am arguing with you. We probably agree more than it appears.

          • Brent R. Orrell

            Bruce – I like you lemming analogy so let’s expand a bit on that concept. Imagine that you are driving through the Mojave Desert and you come across a terrible car accident. The driver is alive but dazed and disoriented and reeks of alcohol and weed. Moreover, he speaks Chinese instead of English. In his confusion he’s threatening to walk out into the desert where you know there are rattlesnakes and scorpions and no water. In other words, he’s headed to sure death. As I said, he is an alien who doesn’t know where he is and doesn’t understand you are saying to him. Talking louder and more slowly won’t help. The first thing you have to do if you want to help this man is to get his trust, to convince him that you can help him. You smile, try to get him into your car so you can take him to your house where you can help. After you tend to his wounds and get him dried out you work out a system of communication so that he’s able to start understanding what you are saying to him. After a while, he gets enough of your analysis of the problem that you are able to suggest a good AA program and a driving school that can help prevent him from repeating his mistakes.

            I like this because it addresses both the micro and macro level. At the micro level, this is the pastoral approach to dealing with individuals. A great book came out last year that I highly recommend talking about a young man’s journey out his toxic life patterns and into the life of Christ. Here’s the link: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/out-of-a-far-country-christopher-yuan/1100569160?ean=9780307729354

            What’s remarkable about his journey is that it was the love of his mother and father, who were converted themselves during his rebellion, that brought him back. They learned how to love one another and then began to love their son. A quick read and very much worth the time.

            At the macro level, we can think of our drunk driver as the culture we are speaking into. Disoriented, high on the lies they have been raised on, and badly wounded. Turning up the volume of our critique is just noise. It literally doesn’t make sense. I think many of us are bilingual enough to make sense of what the culture is saying to us but the culture has utterly forgotten the moral language of the Bible. We have to re-catechize which is a long, laborious process and much more complex than restating truths to people who share none of our assumptions.

          • Bruce Atkinson

            I was with you until your last paragraph. It suggests that we should downplay the saving truths. When people share none of our assumptions, of course we find ways to love them and show them God’s love. But then we do all we can to convince them (as did Paul) of God’s love but also convince them of the consequences of turning away. Even today in this relativistic culture, those lost sheep who are ready to hear…do hear. I have lots of proof on a consistent and long term basis for this. It is the Holy Spirit who prepares them and the Holy Spirit (whose timing is perfect) who convinces them through our scripture-based words. I refuse to water down the gospel as you seem to suggest. It does not work.

          • Brent R. Orrell

            Not watering it down; intensifying it, increasing the dose but in ways that surprise. Jesus almost always took an indirect approach; he told stories and parables and uttered equisitely tailored words of prophecy. The only people he ever seemed to lash out at were the legalists and the dogmatists of his own religious party. And he loved hanging out with lost people. In our era, where we have lost the commanding heights of culture, I think this is the more effective model – unless we only want to talk to ourselves.

          • Bruce Atkinson

            Yes. And the American Episcopal Church (TEC) is about as legalistic and dogmatic (in the hyperliberal direction) as any church I have heard about. Look at their millions spent on court costs and attorneys to obtain a church’s buildings. Perhaps you agree.

            Bottom line for me: Preaching the unvarnished truth of the gospel, accompanied by practical, compassionate help, has always been more effective than any other evangelistic strategy. Which is why TEC is shrinking fast.

          • Brent R. Orrell

            Yes, Bruce, TEC is legalistic and dogmatic and so are its fiercest critics. Its like the generals of the Civil War: they all went to West Point and they all fought the same way. The arch liberals and the arch conservatives of Anglicanism are cut from the same bolt of cloth and they are equally unappealing, each pushing a truncated and untrue gospel.


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